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Ford, Partners, to Focus on the “E” in EVs

Mary Catherine O'Connor | Wednesday November 4th, 2009 | 0 Comments

ford-illuThere are different estimates and projections regarding when, and if, electric vehicles (EVs) will transform our transportation infrastructure, but one thing seems certain: carmakers won’t be able to transform the infrastructure on their own.

Last month I attended a forum presented by Ford in which it previewed its upcoming electric vehicles—the battery electric (BEV) Transit Connect (a utility van) due in 2010, followed by BEV Focus sedan in 2011 and plug-in hybrid (PHEV) in 2012. Nancy Gioia, Ford’s director of global electrification, also provided an overview of the tooling and manufacturing systems that Ford has put into place in order to hit its production targets for EVs while also maximizing its current manufacturing models—i.e creating production lines that can be used for building vehicles with electric, hybrid or fuel-based engines.

But the real work starts where EV production ends.

Ford—as well as every other carmaker introducing EVs—has to take an active role in transforming the current transportation infrastructure. Without that transformation, success for EVs seems unlikely. This change is already underway, of course, and represents a major opportunity for companies, such as Better Place, that are developing models for drivers of BEVs and PHEVs to charge up while away from home.

But unless electrical grids are able to provide the power that EVs require, it won’t matter if there is an EV charging station on each and every street corner in the US. Ford knows it can’t bring EVs into mainstream use on its own, it needs to work with partners such as electrical utilities to make sure the driving—and charging—experience is smooth, and makes owning an EV as convenient as owning a conventional car.

“We can’t over-promise and under-deliver, or hype this [technology],” said Giola. “It must be part of the transportation future.”

During the forum Mark Duvall, director of electric transportation at the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), an independent, non-profit center for public interest energy and environmental collaborative research, talked about the ways in which EPRI is partnering with Ford and a number of electric utility providers around the country to study the ways in which EV use will impact electrical grids.

If, for the sake of argument, many people on a single street were to go out and buy EVs tomorrow and then come home from work and all plug in their cars to charge them up at, say, 5:30 pm, it’s likely that the demand for power would be greater than the nearest transformer could handle.

So working out the power management side of electrical vehicles is a key step to bringing them into the mainstream. Companies such Google are also playing an active role in the effort by developing software aimed at optimizing the charging process using algorithms that reduce demand spikes on the grid. In fact, there’s a whole new breed of software, called vehicle-to-grid technology that is emerging to address this problem. The Ford Focus PHEV in which I rode during the forum uses this type of software to regulate its electric power.

And during the Forum forum, Gioia noted that a special synchronicity may exist between EVs and wind power. Drivers will use vehicle-to-grid software in their cars to regulate how and when the cars soak up electrical juice—assuming that the electrical grid in their location can support this interface (therein lies the importance of utilities playing an active role here). The software will seek out renewable sources of energy and can be set to accept a charge only when electrical rates are under a preset rate. Many EVs will be parked during the late nighttime hours and this is when the wind tend to blows, so the cars’ charge is likely to be powered by wind.

“Adding off-peak load [on the grid] boosts efficiency of the overall [energy] infrastructure and since wind is a night-time energy, there’s good synergy between PHEVs and wind power,” said Gioia.

For a deeper dive on the path Ford is seeking to sustainability, check out this post from my Triple Pundit colleague Steve Puma.

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